There are legendary people and places in the drive to save seed diversity, and then there’s the legend. Nikolai Vavilov was a Russian plant geneticist who was active in the 1920s and 30s. Urbane and erudite, full of charm and curiosity, Vavilov made friends with everyone from local farmers to government officials. On a quest to prevent the periodic devastating famines that had plagued Russia for centuries, he traveled the world, collecting seeds. The seed bank that now bears his name grew to 400,000 seeds as a result of his vision and energy.
A fascinating aspect of our agricultural history is that planting seeds to grow food happened in several disconnected areas 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. Like an evolutionary radiation, it was a sudden burst of activity across widely separated groups of humans. It was Vavilov’s genius to recognize the importance of discovering these cradles of cultivation. He was an avid explorer, with a love for the endless fieldwork his quests entailed, and adept at picking up languages and dialects. He rightly guessed that the areas where food plant species first flourished would be deep repositories of genetic diversity. His five areas were China, Ethiopia, the Andes region of Central America, the Mediterranean, and central Asia. Mountainous regions are particularly lush with biodiversity because they contain so many different ecosystems, each with their own genetic variants.
His life ended tragically. Once the highly respected leader of Soviet agricultural science, he ended up in Stalin’s gulag for promoting the ‘bourgeois science’ of evolution and for the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of his international connections. There, Vavilov died of the starvation he spent his life trying to prevent.
But even Stalin knew not to destroy his seed bank. It survived the 900-day German siege of Leningrad in World War II because Vavilov’s employees locked themselves in the building. Despite having no heat or running water, and dying of starvation themselves, the survivors protected the seeds until the siege was over. That same deep understanding and love for what seeds bring us from their long genetic history inspire all kinds of seed activism today.
There are the ‘doomsday’ seed banks like Svalbard in Norway, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado, and the Millennium Seedbank in England. The United Nations has nine banks around the world. Many countries store their heritage seeds in national vaults. Hundreds of smaller banks often hold seeds of less commercially important plants. Their genes may prove crucial to the continuing vitality of agriculture, and thus to our existence as a species. Innumerable seed saving groups and exchanges keep heirloom seeds in circulation. Seed libraries allow you to check out seeds in spring and return in the fall with seeds from your harvest.
Heroes are still with us, like the Iraqis who rescued seeds from an important Abu Ghraib bank before the building was destroyed by a bomb. The seeds, with genes from the beginning of agriculture, were taken to one of the United Nations banks, near Aleppo, in Syria. Later, as the Syrian war intensified, they were packed again and driven to Lebanon on the last open road. Some have now made it to Svalbard.
Organizations large and small have their own legends, like Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Feisty and inexhaustible, Kimbrell spends his life taking corporations and government agencies to court to protect food, farmers, consumers, and the planet. We owe the fact that DNA itself cannot be patented to litigation by the Center for Food Safety. It was their series of lawsuits and collaborative campaigns that prevented the USDA from watering down organic standards. Last year they added a Global Seed Network to their existing Save Our Seeds program. The network provides a platform to connect smaller groups and individuals.
Navdanya (‘Nine seeds’) was founded in India by another legend, Vandana Shiva, a force of nature and environmental warrior worldwide. Navdanya’s mission is to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed.” Dedicated to community resilience and social justice, Navdanya works locally throughout India. In the past twenty years, nine million farmers have been trained in sustainable farming and seed sovereignty. They have established 122 seed banks, and their own farm is a teaching center. Crucially, they are in the forefront on issues of biopiracy. International treaties guarantee national sovereignty over genetic resources. But it’s a constant, underfunded battle to protect native seeds and plants from corporate predators.
Once a seed has been patented it can no longer be used to create other crop varieties. To reduce competition for their genetically modified products corporations buy seed companies to take traditional seeds off the market. Modeled on the open source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative was created to “free the seed.” Seed growing and breeding partners commit to keeping OSSI-pledged seeds, their derivatives, and information about them available to all.
Vavilov’s solution to famine lay in seed diversity, which yields crop diversity. Farmers need a deep pool of traits to choose from. Then, as conditions change, they and their crops can adapt. At the best of times, there are changes in populations of beneficial and harmful insects. New plant diseases evolve. Rainfall and temperature vary. But global warming has made diversity a worldwide challenge. Warmer, drier climate not only makes drought more likely but brings changes in insect populations and diseases. Every change ripples through the ecosystem.
The nature of Nature is variety. There are 400,000 species of beetles! But evolution takes time and needs available traits to work with. Right now we’re creating a dangerous bottleneck in the diversity of food species because corporate control has restricted access to 90% of our crop seeds. Seeds need to be planted and harvested to keep the gene lines mingling and flourishing, reacting to the conditions they’re grown in. Limiting the gene pool makes no sense outside of corporate boardrooms. Local government agents urged farmers in Mexico’s Chihuahuan highlands to switch from their native corn to a white variety that produces more ears with larger seeds. But the white corn lacks the anthocyanins that turn the native corn blue. Not only do those polyphenols make the blue corn more nutritious, but they evolved to protect the seedlings from cold in that mountainous area.
By the time we figure out these mistakes — and they are worldwide — we could lose precious genetic information forever. Seed banks are not the answer. They offer protection against catastrophic loss, but they are vulnerable. Svalbard was put inside a mountain in the Arctic so the permafrost would keep the seeds cold and prevent flooding. But the permafrost is melting, and water got to the door in 2017. Even if we could keep every seed in every bank safe, they exist in suspended animation. They’re kept viable, but the viability they inherited may not suit the growing conditions they meet in the future. Seeds in circulation and actively growing will adapt as circumstances change.
The venerable Seed Savers Exchange is ensuring just that. Started in 1975 by Kent and Diane Ott Whealy, the organization has preserved over 25,000 heirloom seeds. SSE runs the largest non-government seed bank in the world and also stores seeds at Svalbard. But their mission is to continually grow out seeds on an 890-acre farm to keep plant genes ever renewing and mingling. Through what they call participatory preservation, gardeners worldwide grow with them, adapting plants to a wide variety of conditions. The resulting seeds are shared with Seed Savers and offered on the site’s Seed Exchange.
The Italian agronomist Salvatore Ceccarelli is creating a similar movement with farmers: participatory plant breeding. He spent most of his career in the Mideast, working with cereal grain farmers in those dry conditions. When he had to leave during the Syrian war, he brought seeds with him to Italy to develop grains suitable for global warming. He works with farmers collectively to breed seeds that work best not only for their local environment but for all grain growing areas in a drier world.
Genetic diversity is extremely subtle. Look at the fascinating array of our fellow humans. All those variations come from less than one percent of our genes. For the rest, we’re basically identical. So keeping a gene line pure while at the same time fostering its adaptive abilities is a delicate task. One that Native Seeds/Search has taken on. Their specialty is indigenous seeds of the southwest United States and northwest Mexico. They have a small bank and farm to protect, regenerate and supply 1900 seeds. Most are for food but some are from plants used for dyes, medicines, and shelter. Native Seeds’ mission is to keep the heritage seeds of local tribes pure and flourishing in the face of threats to their culture, ecology, and traditional farming practices.
Ultimately, all seed saving is cultural. Crop seeds evolved in intimate relation to the peoples who planted them. Whether saving Navaho corn, Syrian wheat, or Ethiopian teff, we are preserving the history of a region. It’s the story of our ancestors and their patient labor over the last 12,000 years. Blessedly, there are millions of seed savers all over the world. From card tables at farmers markets, backyard sheds, community exchanges, banks large and small, our heritage seeds are moving, growing, adapting. Will this stem the corporate juggernaut? Only by growing the movement not just to save seeds, but to grow community empowerment and activism. Corporate profits depend on our not understanding what’s happening to our inheritance.
By saving seeds we are keeping alive millions and millions of conversations. Between the soil and the seed, the farmer and the land, the earth and its beings. If we lose this priceless genetic history, we’re not only losing the brilliance of seeds but the ancestral genius that worked with them over millennia to create the foods we love and rely on. Men and women who noticed that this seed yielded sweeter berries, that one survived late spring frost, this one thrived despite a dry season. Who built on that knowledge, shared it, passed it down to us. Who sat down daily to meals we are still eating amid traditions we still cherish. Through this profound and nourishing legacy seeds become a door into what it means to be human.